[Review] 'Shirley' is a Fascinating Origin Story of One of Horror's Finest Writers that Perfectly Blends Fact and Fiction
In the spooky drama Shirley, directed by Josephine Decker, newlyweds Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) move in with Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) while Fred attends Bennington College to study folklore...
...According to Stanley, his wife, horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), has writer’s block…but as Rose attends to her, and her own pregnancy progresses, Shirley becomes more inspired, obsessed with a missing girl at the university, and the women’s husbands grow more distracted yet controlling.
“Is it true?” is about the least interesting question to ask of a work of nonfiction, and that includes biopics…so I want to be clear up front: this is not a biopic. In fact, this film is an adaptation of a novel written with Shirley Jackson as its main character. I say that to establish a clearer contract with the viewer: the book by Susan Scarf Merrell was marketed as a novel. I’m not sure how or why that language got lost in the marketing of the film, but if we view this movie as a sort of folkloric representation of an actual person, I think it will eliminate a lot of frustrations and disappointments.
The movie itself, though—wow. It’s such an interesting rumination on the origin tale of the woman who introduced us to some of the most terrifying stories in the American canon. As a writer, it’s inspiring to see her portrayed in a flawed-but-fascinating way, at the mercy of her own mind. The character of Shirley Jackson is depicted in as gothic a mood as a character in one of her own books, think Constance Blackwood or Eleanor Vance. The irony of Jackson’s husband, Stanley, being a professor of folklore is not lost on me: this film basically is the folklore of Shirley Jackson. It intentionally blends fact and myth, and I love that.
The film mythologizes the inspiring incidents of her novel Hangsaman, illustrating how Jackson grew entranced by the “missing” posters of a college girl, how her mind superimposed the face of her new lodger over the one in the poster to create a character. It’s so fascinating how the creative process is portrayed, leaving the viewer wondering, is this fact? Is this fiction? Does it matter? Should it matter?
Before all that, though, we have the elements readers of Shirley Jackson have come to know and love, the elements of the Gothic, the house, the madwoman in the attic, the witch; and we get to see the obsessions of Shirley Jackson, too, for viewers who know her as an author. “I’m a witch,” she tells Rose, her lodger, “didn’t anyone tell you that?” She shows her near-clairvoyance by immediately stating that Rose is pregnant, and by drawing three tarot cards of the Hanged Man. Plus, everyone fears her a little. Even the Dean of the college says at the party, “You terrify me,” and he means it as a compliment.
The scariest part to me, by the way, is when Shirley is writing of Paula, the missing girl, and in Shirley’s reverie, Paula turns around and has no face.
Viewing a person without a face is scary enough… imagine how scary it would be to not have a face, yourself.
In another, similarly-themed scene, Shirley sits in the bathtub and imagines Paula’s bloody footprints walking down a sterile hallway. She reaches out from her tub to grasp a bloody hand from the foreground, which seems to indicate that we, the viewer, are Paula, walking down the hallway, faceless, toward Shirley’s imagination.
There even comes a point of contention between Shirley and Stanley in which Stanley calls the missing girl—and by extension, Shirley’s character—“nothing.” He says, “She’s a nothing.” And Shirley responds, “There are dozens of girls like her… they cannot make the world see them. Do not tell me I do not know her.” That line is the most important one in the film, I think, because it tells us the “so-what” or the whole point of the movie: just because the world won’t see these weird, unimportant girls, doesn’t mean they don’t matter. They matter a lot to Shirley, in particular.
The camera work renders these indistinguishable qualities in a way that might seem unnecessarily artsy, blurred, or dark to some viewers, but I loved the not-quite-shaky-cam cinematography. The somewhat unsteady frame makes it seem as though the viewer is in the room with the characters. That form imitates its content. We are there, but we are not seen.
For those who are fascinated in her written work, like I am, Shirley’s characterization is also fascinating, fully leaning into the concept of her mental health mixing with her practice of witchcraft and research and writing processes. I was relieved that even though she was a little unlikeable, that character was not portrayed as weak or damaged or indulging in her illness. Rather, she has a fiercely independent spirit despite what looks like agoraphobia, and especially in spite of her overbearing and condescending husband.
As we all know, Elisabeth Moss is a national treasure, and her performance in Shirley is no exception: she is an expert at diving off the deep end, and no one else could have rendered such a staunch character in as relatable and still eccentric a manner, from her frowns to her open-mouthed smile as she hexes her husband’s mistress, squeezing her chin and muttering, “You would bore him to death in a week.”
Speaking of Stanley, what a tremendous performance: as soon as Stanley walked on screen I said aloud, “I fucking hate him. I don’t know why yet, but I do.” Now, I know why. Under the guise of helping her overcome her writer’s block, Stanley babies her in an insufferably condescending way. He insists that she must work, and yet he barely acknowledges her projects, let alone validates them as worth writing. A less headstrong wife might have been discouraged.
As I was watching this film, I felt like its true target audience: I write horror, I adore a well-curated mis en scene (I didn’t even get to talk to y’all about her library), and I constantly need to see women overcome challenges in order to be inspired myself. If I just described you, don’t pass up this film. Really, if you enjoy a slow burn and you’re okay with an ambiguous, folktale-like narrative, and a beautiful feature, this one is for you.
Shirley is now available on VOD from Neon.
By Mary Kay McBrayer
Enjoy Mary Kay's writing? Check out her true crime book, America's First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster, available now through Amazon.